European-Israeli immigrants remember independence 60 years on

European-Israeli immigrants remember independence 60 years on

14th May 2008, Comments 0 comments

Two postwar Israeli immigrants recount their experiences of Israel declaring independence in 1948

To this day, Pinkas Jaskierowicz remembers the day - May 14, 1948 - when Israel declared its statehood.

He was 23 at the time, had arrived on his own in Palestine only a few months earlier in the early spring, and was living with three other bachelors in a rented room in Gadera, a Jewish agricultural commune south of Tel Aviv.

Pinkas, from Zawiercie in southern Poland, had lost all his family in the Nazi Holocaust, including his mother, his father, four brothers and three sisters.

His mother's death especially he cannot forget. He had been rounded up in the central market square with all the Jewish men of the town to be sent off to forced labour, and she had tried to kiss her teenage son goodbye.

"Mother ran after me and said: 'Pinkas, I want to give you a kiss. I don't know if I'll see you again.' But the Nazi turned to her. He said: 'What is she doing, this old rag?' He aimed his weapon and killed her. I will never forget it. It haunts me, this image."

He weighed just 28 kilos when liberated on May 5, 1945 from Mauthausen by American troops, who he said had to clear the corpses littering the street one by one before they could slowly make their way into the concentration camp.

Pinkas had spent the second half of his teens living through four Nazi camps in five years of war.

His home and life destroyed and after spending more than a year in a displaced persons camp in Italy, he wanted to get to Palestine where Jews were trying to build a state.

But his ship carrying Holocaust refugees was intercepted by British naval vessels, enforcing a blockade to prevent Jewish immigration to Palestine.

Britain, which had administered Palestine after World War I had ended four centuries of Ottoman rule over it, was concerned that unchecked Jewish immigration would worsen the already tense relations between local Jews and Arabs.

"I have no place in this world. Nobody wants me. If I'm worth anything, I should be allowed in somewhere," he remembers feeling as the British escorted the ship's passengers to an internment camp in Cyprus.

He spent almost a year in the camp for illegal immigrants, and it was in Cyprus that he and other inmates heard live on radio the November 1947 UN General-Assembly vote to divide Palestine into two separate Jewish and Arab states.

The emotional images of Jews throughout Palestine and the world reacting with raucous cheers, each time a country cast its vote in favour of the creation of the Jewish state, even if only in part of Palestine, have since become part of Israeli iconography.

But the Arabs rejected the partition plan and only months later the local Jewish leadership decided to take matters into their own hands and declare independence, a day before Britain's UN mandate over the disputed territory was due to expire on May 15, 1948.

By this time, Pinkas had finally been allowed to enter Palestine along with a small quota of immigrants.

That May day, speculation that statehood was imminent had been rife, and when the radio said that a special announcement was coming, crowds gathered outdoors in Pinkas' agricultural commune of Gadera.

When the announcement came in a live broadcast over loudspeakers, "people hugged, kissed, began to dance," recalls the 83-year-old.

"You know, sometimes people also cry out of joy, and there were people who cried. I wept, and I'll tell you why. I had a reason to cry. Because I had been in the dark, and suddenly I saw a sign of light for a better future," he added.

Arieh Haendler, a German Jew who spent the war obtaining visas for thousands of Jews trying to flee Nazi-occupied Europe, remembers the statehood declaration from close up.

At 92, he is the only survivor from the about 100 Jewish officials who were in the room to hear Ben-Gurion read out the document known in Israel today as the Declaration of Independence.

The treasurer of a Zionist religious, socialist party, he had been informed of the meeting - held in Tel Aviv because Jerusalem was besieged by Arab armies - by a messenger on a motorcycle only a day earlier.

He proudly holds up the original invitation he has kept for so many years, which informed him that statehood would be declared the next day, requesting him to keep the news a secret and to wear dark festive clothing for the occasion.

The afternoon meeting was brief and to the point, he remembers. Haendler went home to have dinner, then to the synagogue as he did every Sabbath eve. But that night, hundreds poured into the streets of the largest Jewish city in the nascent state.

"It was a Friday night. People were dancing in the streets of Tel Aviv, at a time when the Egyptian air force was flying over the city."

The joy, Haendler says, was mingled with fear of the imminent war, as the armies of six Arab states, unwilling to accept Israel's creation, invaded the next day.


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